South Okanagan community fighting to reclaim beach from endangered plant - InfoNews

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South Okanagan community fighting to reclaim beach from endangered plant

Residents of Okanagan Falls have lost a large portion of their beach at Christie Memorial Park because of an endangered species designation for the short-rayed alkali aster.
August 12, 2020 - 7:30 AM

In the early 2000s, the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen bought a sandy beach in Okanagan Falls that could compete with any in the South Okanagan.

Christie Memorial Park on Skaha Lake originated as a provincial park and was used for years, but now much of the prime real estate is off limits to beach users because it’s home to a plant called the star-rayed alkali aster some say is endangered, but the regional district director for the area says is mostly a bureaucratic creation.

“It’s a fascinating story few people know about, but the more you know, the more you wonder how this could go on,” Ron Obirek says.

Shortly after the regional district bought the park, the federal species at risk legislation was passed, establishing a committee known as the Committee of Species Endangered within Canada and it restricted public use of the beach in 2006 when the short-rayed aster was discovered growing there.

Now the beach is full of asters and Obirek, along with a growing initiative in the area to claim back the beach say the onus should be on the endangered species committee to prove it’s endangered.
In  a report to Environment Canada, only four locations were known for the plant at the time, including Christie Memorial Park. The scarcity of locations is what defined it as a species at risk.

Clusters of Short-rayed Alkali Asters at Christie Memorial Park this week. The plant blooms in July through August.
Clusters of Short-rayed Alkali Asters at Christie Memorial Park this week. The plant blooms in July through August.

“The plant grows from Mexico through the United States into southern British Columbia. It’s not really endangered at all, but the committee says it’s in danger of being eliminated from Canada,” Obirek says.

According to legislation, Obirek says if 10 or more sites for the plant can be proven, it would no longer be considered an endangered species, and the community could have its beach frontage back.

Obirek says the park has lost 330 feet of beach waterfront as a result of the plant, real estate valued at over $3 million.

"It was once recognized as one of the top 10 beaches in Canada. Now we've lost over two-thirds of the waterfront," he says.

The restricted area is now being encroached upon by invasive species Obirek says will eventually crowd out the aster, and he says the number of plants has increased from a count of 13 plants in 2013 to more than 130,000 in 2016.

“The restricted area is 20,000 square feet, so that’s five plants per square foot. It’s clearly not struggling,” Obirek says.

Several plaques lining the edge of the off-limits portion of Christie Memorial Park Beach proclaim “Short-rayed Asters are small wildflowers that bloom between late July and September. They are listed as endangered under the Federal Species at Risk Act. In all of Canada, they can only be found on shorelines of a few select lakes in the Okanagan, including right here!"

The director says his discussions with federal environmental representatives and their provincial counterparts at the B.C. Ministry of Forests indicate insufficient budgets for those departments to carry out their due diligence to find more plants.

He says senior governments have confirmed they have provided "minimal effort" into looking for additional populations or locations of the aster.

He wants to negotiate an amendment to the stewardship agreement between the regional district and the federal government to relocate the aster off the beach or eliminate it altogether from the waterfront.

He says he is currently aware of seven locations where the aster can be found. Residents of Okanagan Falls recently formed the “Save The Aster, Save The Beach Society” and are offering a $500 bounty to anyone who can find other locations for it, up to a maximum of 10 locations.

“There’s no way this little flower exists at Christie Beach and nowhere else. The community feels strongly about this, and I’ve discussed our position with the regional board. Neither the province nor the federal government needs to force us into saving a plant that’s not endangered. This isn’t the only place the aster will grow,” he says.

The aster doesn’t bloom until mid July, and into August, making this an ideal time to be looking for the plant. Obirek says the aster has been found around Osoyoos, Vaseux and Skaha Lakes, and a patch is even known to exist at Max Lake, a small pond in the West Bench area of Penticton.

“We need to find more locations, or identify locations where it can be planted,” he says.

Obirek says the idea behind saving the plant might have been well-intentioned, but in the end it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

“This endangered designation has robbed us of our beach, a high-value community asset, and given us a liability of cost and disappointment. It's a sad story, because you could say a lot of people had good intent, but when you study it to its logical detail, you say, gosh this makes no sense,” Obirek says.

Obirek met with community residents Aug. 10 at the waterfront park to talk about the issue and help those interested in locating and identifying the plant.

Don't go where the short-rayed alkali aster grows on Christie Memorial Park beach in Okanagan Falls. Local politician Ron Obirek disputes the endangered designation for the plant, which he says is populous.
Don't go where the short-rayed alkali aster grows on Christie Memorial Park beach in Okanagan Falls. Local politician Ron Obirek disputes the endangered designation for the plant, which he says is populous.

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